What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

"If we were allowed to magically roll back history..."


That's the question that Adam Hochschild posits at the outset of this wonderful book about World War I: had that shot fired in Sarajevo, killing the heir to the Habsburg empire, never triggered the war, what kind of world might we inhabit today?

I admit I was predisposed to love this book. I'm convinced that if Adam Hochschild went off to a conference of ichthyologists, he would return with a compelling narrative about an obscure kind of spiny fish that no one had ever previously suspected was of any importance, and create a passion for oceanography and all the related disciplines among all his readers. That's the kind of storytelling prowess that Hochschild brings to all his books and that makes this latest narrative one of the best I've read about the First World War -- a part of history that is so replete with histories and first-hand narratives ranging from the mundane to the literary that prior to reading this I would have been prepared to swear there simply wasn't any room for a top-notch work offering a new perspective on the war or the issues it raised. Or, for that matter, any need for yet another tome on the subject.

I am delighted to have been proven dead wrong. Hochschild has chosen a fresh angle to explore, one that most of those who write about war shy away from altogether. Is war moral? Is it necessary? Is it something to be celebrated and glorified, or something we should avoid as a socially destructive force? When World War One ended, it became known as the war to end all wars -- so horrific had the experiences of survivors been, that they insisted war could NOT be contemplated again. And yet, at the outset, the mood was something quite different -- even socialists who had celebrated the global union of working men voted in favor of war and, with rare exceptions like Britain's Keir Hardie (one of the heroes of Hochschild's story) supported it and turned out to fight men whom they had embraced as fellow workers only months earlier but who had suddenly become "the enemy".

Hochschild does a superb job of finding the characters through which to tell his story -- the divisions within the Pankhurst family, with Emmeline the matriarch suddenly becoming an ultra-patriot, abandoning her violent campaign for womens' suffrage, even as her daughter Sylvia clung to her pacifist convictions. Sir John French, one of the generals who seemed unable to grasp the way that technological developments such as the machine gun and barbed wire had transformed the nature of war and who thus oversaw and commanded battles that resulted in unprecedented carnage, had his own cross to bear: his elder sister, Charlotte Despard, was a vehement critic of the conflict at home. Hochschild puts forth both sides with tremendous empathy, telling of the loss of Rudyard Kipling's son in battle and Kipling's wrenching grief and unshaken support for the war, as well as the fate of conscientious objectors who were shipped overseas to the front lines (against government policy) to serve in the ranks, and who faced being court-martialed and shot if they refused to pick up their rifles.

While the war was a long and complex conflict, stretching literally around the world, Hochschild's narrative is both easily digestible and makes the Great War comprehensible on a basic level. It doesn't purport to be a comprehensive survey of all the fronts and all the battles -- there is little here about the Galician front, the battle of Jutland or other naval conflicts, for instance, and there is a definite bias toward the experiences of war in the trenches of the Western front, from Flanders to Alsace-Lorraine. What is it is, however, is a book that will give even a reader who isn't familiar with the war an overview of its causes and major events, even as it prods them to think about the nature of war itself.

World War One changed the world -- it accelerated technological developments, transformed societies around the world, and laid the groundwork for subsequent conflicts that endure to this day in the Middle East. It did NOT end all wars, but it did make the question of whether war can be considered as valid a means of pursuing a nation's self interest as it was in the 16th or 17th centuries a legitimate one. Hochschild has done a brilliant job exploring the complex moral issues that surrounded that debate, without ever lapsing into platitudes or polemics.

I first received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley; I liked it so much that I ended up purchasing my own hardcover copy as soon as the book was published. Highly recommended.

Some folks have asked me recently to recommend other books about World War I. There are a lot of broad histories, each with their various strengths and weaknesses, by authors such as John Keegan, Hew Strachan and G.J. Meyer. Later this year, I'll be reading some first-hand accounts, such as Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger. But here's a list of my personal favorites, each of which sheds light on the issues surrounding the war or what flowed from it, in more esoteric ways, in much the same way Hochschild's book did.
  • The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell ***** is a magisterial look at the way that the war transformed society and culture. An emphasis on the Western Front.
  • Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain ***** is a memoir from the "home front" in England, written by a woman who lost loved ones and then went on to nurse in the war. Seminal.
  • Rites of Spring by Modris Eksteins ****1/2 takes a look at the cultural and social environment leading up to the war (it starts with the cacophany of the Stravinsky ballet of the title) and looks at the world that emerged from the other end, including art work by Kathe Kollwitz. 
  • Death's Men by Dennis Winter ****1/2 is made up of first hand memoirs or contemporaneous accounts from the trenches.
  • Back to the Front by Stephen O'Shea ****1/2 is the story of one man's walking tour (circa early 90s) along the trenches of the 1914-1918 war, from Flanders to the Alsation front.
  • The Englishman's Daughter by Ben Macintyre **** tells what it was like on the other side of the trenches, in the occupied zones of France and Belgium, by looking at the experience of some hidden Allied soldiers who were eventually betrayed by villagers to the Germans. 
  • The Missing of the Somme by Geoff Dyer **** is the story of trying to come to grips with the cost of war, and the "memorial industry" that sprang up. 
This is far from comprehensive; indeed, it probably focuses too heavily on the Western front. But then, my summer job in high school was to work as a tour guide in the underground tunnel system at Vimy Ridge (site of a Canadian victory in April 1917), so perhaps I'm biased... 

1 comment:

  1. Fabulous review of "To End All Wars", Suz! This book definitely makes it onto my "Buy ASAP" list.